The NFL has a handful of different quarterback tiers. There are backups, below-average starters, middle-of-the-road guys, great players and then the elite. The last group is an exclusive one that only a few quarterbacks can claim membership to – the Tom Bradys, the Ben Roethlisbergers, the Matt Ryans.
Each year, it seems like one quarterback earns himself the “elite” label, with Ryan and Russell Wilson the latest to do so, by most people’s measures. But who will be the next guy to join the highest class of quarterbacks in the NFL?
There are six players with the best chance to do so in 2017.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
Tannehill had a great season under Adam Gase in 2016, taking his play to another level. Unfortunately, his year ended a bit early due to a knee injury, which he’s still recovering from. He shouldn’t miss any time in 2017 after avoiding surgery, but there may be lingering effects from having to wear a bulky brace.
Still, Tannehill has the potential to become elite next season. It seems like we say that every year, but the Dolphins have a great supporting cast around him, and his growing experience at the position is bound to keep him on an upward trajectory.
The most notable thing missing from Tannehill’s resume is a playoff appearance. Yes, he was a big part of the Dolphins’ run to the postseason in 2016, but his injury kept him out of the team’s playoff loss. He needs to help Miami bump the Patriots from their AFC East throne, or at least win a wild-card playoff game in order to take the next step.
USA TODAY SportsJasen Vinlove
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Prescott only has one year of experience under his belt, but he’s already an above-average quarterback. Last season, he had 23 touchdown passes with just four interceptions, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and tossing his name into the discussion for league MVP. Granted, he wasn’t asked to do things that Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are required to do, but his potential is extremely high.
So what else does Prescott need to do to be considered an elite quarterback? For one, he needs to be the centerpiece of the offense – the player that the unit runs through. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was the workhorse last season, making Prescott’s job a whole lot easier. This season, Prescott needs to take the reins and open up the offense.
He must take more take shots downfield – which he did toward the end of the season – and fit passes into tight windows, rather than relying heavily on underneath throws. He also needs to avoid any sign of a sophomore slump in order to prove he's the real deal.
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Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Winston is a gunslinger who isn’t afraid to let it rip into a tight window 25 yards down the field. He’s been like that since his college days, and sometimes it costs him with ugly interceptions. Does that mean he can’t be an elite quarterback? Was Brett Favre elite? Well, there’s your answer.
Winston absolutely needs to cut down on the turnovers – 33 interceptions in two seasons – to be considered among the best, but some of the plays he does make show why the Bucs took him first overall. He can make every throw in the book with the greatest of ease, and scrambling 25 yards backward for 11 seconds only to complete a pass for a first down is no trouble, either.
That being said, his decisions sometimes are questionable, but another year in Dirk Koetter’s system should help his development. Not to mention, the Bucs added tight end O.J. Howard and deep threat wideout DeSean Jackson to the offense, and they are sure to elevate Winston's play.
USA TODAY SportsTim Heitman
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Mariota made a huge jump last season after a decent rookie year, but a leg injury cut his season one game short. He had 26 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions, posting a stellar passer rating of 95.6. His improvement wasn’t just in the numbers, either. He got better on deep passes, pocket presence and accuracy across all levels of the field, even though his completion percentage dipped a bit.
In 2017, Mariota is in position to improve even more dramatically. Why? Because of his comfort with the Titans’ offense and the weapons the front office has surrounded him with. Mariota has a solid running game with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, a true No. 1 receiver in Corey Davis and an offensive line that’s becoming one of the best in the NFL.
It may take him another year to reach the elite level, but Mariota is on track to becoming one of the best players in the NFL. He just needs to cut down on his fumbles and take the Titans to the playoffs.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Some would argue that Stafford is already elite. He’s had a 41-touchdown season, led the league in both completions and attempts and helped the Lions make the playoffs three times. However, he has just one Pro Bowl appearance, has never posted a season with a passer rating above 100 and has never thrown fewer than 10 interceptions in a season.
He’s an above-average starter, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s a gap between being a great quarterback and an elite one. Stafford has yet to close that gap, but he can do so in 2017 by taking his play to the next level. Despite not having much of a running game, or a dominant receiver like he had in the past with Calvin Johnson, Stafford can elevate his play by cutting down on turnovers and throwing more touchdown passes.
Most important, he needs to make a deep playoff run. Matt Ryan did exactly that last year and immediately vaulted his name into the elite conversation. If Stafford can reach a conference title game, he’ll be squarely in the discussion.
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Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Carr had a breakout year in 2016, throwing for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 15 games. His passer rating continued to climb from 76.6 as a rookie to 91.1 in his sophomore year to 96.7 last season. All indications are that he’s on track to being an elite quarterback, but he’s not quite there yet.
A stellar 2017 campaign could put him over the top. Carr has all the tools a team looks for in a quarterback: arm strength, accuracy, mobility, intangibles. It’s all there. He just needs to put together an All-Pro-type season where he surpasses 30, 35 touchdown passes and has a passer rating above 100.
With Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Marshawn Lynch and a top-three offensive line, Carr also has the playmakers around him to take his game to the next level.